Jonathan Zimmerman: Ford and Brown ... Remember the Dark Side

Roundup: Historians' Take

[ Mr. Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of"Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (Harvard University Press).]

"The evil that men do lives after them," William Shakespeare wrote. "The good is oft interred with their bones." Maybe that was true, back in Elizabethan England. But not here, in the all-is-forgiven U.S.A. Instead, we seem to have reversed Shakespeare's formula: Once you're dead, it's all good. Whatever wrongs you committed, we'll bury them with you. And that's bad news for our entire nation, which will never create a better future without an honest account of its past. Consider the two most notable Americans who have passed away this winter, James Brown and Gerald Ford. After Brown died, our airwaves sagged with paeans to the "Godfather of Soul." Even President Bush got in on the act, praising Brown as "an American original" who "enriched our culture and influenced generations of musicians."

Fair enough. But few commentators paused to note Brown was also a serial abuser of women. That's right, ladies and gentleman: the Godfather of Soul beat his wives.

Two of them, to be exact. In 1987, Brown was charged with assault and intent to kill after he struck his third wife, Adrienne, with an iron pipe; he also fired a rifle into the car she was driving. Brown was arrested again in 2004 for attacking his fourth and last wife, who was taken to the hospital with scratches and bruises to her arm and hip.

Of course, he wasn't the only American man to abuse the women he professed to love. That's precisely the point. If we reported it more honestly, James Brown's death could have provided an opportunity for all Americans to grapple with our dark history of domestic violence. Instead, it quickly devolved into a 24/7 love-fest.

Ditto for former President Ford, whose passing unleashed a swell of almost worshipful tribute. True, obituaries dutifully noted, Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon remained "controversial." No matter their politics, however, statesmen and editorialists praised Ford's steady leadership in the wake of the Watergate scandal. He was a "healer," everyone said, a decent and self-effacing soul who led the nation through some very troubled times.

Again, that's all true. But the focus on Ford's exemplary character -- and on his pardon of Nixon, Ford's most famous public act -- obscures the darker decisions he made, in private, about the Central Intelligence Agency. And we're still living with the consequences. After the Watergate hearings exposed the CIA's domestic spying and other illegal activities, Ford promised a new spirit of openness and reform. He supported the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required judicial approval for wiretaps against Americans. He also pledged to cooperate with congressional investigations of CIA abuses, including secret efforts to assassinate foreign leaders.

Yet after the investigations began, under Sen. Frank Church, Ford stonewalled them. Privately, he told his aides to give Church as little information as possible; he also tried to stop Congress from releasing reports about the assassination program.

Worst of all, Ford fired CIA chief William Colby and replaced him with George Herbert Walker Bush, the future president and father of our current one. Colby had urged full cooperation with the Church investigations; Bush, by contrast, vowed to restrict public disclosures. So did Ford chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, who had recommended Mr. Bush as Colby's replacement.

Egged on by Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld, President Ford would later propose a law imposing jail terms upon government employees who divulged sensitive intelligence to the press. He also allowed Mr. Bush to block a full probe of the CIA's role in the 1976 murder of dissident Orlando Letelier by Chilean secret police. Did the CIA coordinate with the killers? Thanks to Gerald Ford and Mr. Bush, we'll never know. But here's what we do know: Today, more than ever, our intelligence services need congressional supervision. In the current Bush administration, Mr. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney -- another former Ford staffer -- erected unprecedented layers of secrecy around the CIA and other public agencies. Rumsfeld is gone, of course, but the spirit of secrecy remains.

Gerald Ford's death should have provoked a new discussion of these issues, which cut to the very heart our democratic ideals. Instead, as in the case of James Brown, we simply saluted Ford as a great man-and moved on.

And surely, both men were great. By ignoring their flaws, however, we also forsook the chance improve ourselves. "We must remain a people who confront our mistakes and resolve not to repeat them," Frank Church told a 1975 session of the U.S. Senate, convened to discuss his committee's report about CIA assassination plots. "If we do not, we will decline. But if we do, our future will be worthy of the best of our past."

The evil that men do should live after them, in other words, along with the good. That's the only way we can all learn to be better.

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: Gerald Ford, R.I.P.

  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Justin Felux - 1/16/2007

    Don't forget his giving the green light to the Indonesian government's brutal war against East Timor.

    James W Loewen - 1/15/2007

    As the Saigon "government" was in its last pitiful weeks, Pres. Gerald Ford also sent another request to Congress for more American aid -- even though the Pentagon, perhaps recognizing that there was no secure entity to send it to, had not sent half of the amount already authorized. The only residue of this request was that it allows Kissinger to claim today, albeit cynically and inaccurately, that Congress "lost the war," and to draw today, albeit cynically and inaccurately, the inference that we must not "cut and run" from Iraq.